At times, parenting seems to just be one giant series of events in which we end up staring helplessly at a mess and saying “Well, THAT just happened.” But if you think about it, we really have no excuse for not realizing that it would be like this. It starts early, after all. How many of us went into pregnancy and labor with that funny little thing called a “plan”? Maybe you planned the pregnancy. Then, perhaps, you went to the hospital with a carefully scripted birth plan in hand. Or maybe not –maybe you were just winging it all along. But one thing I can guarantee, and only because we all do this, you probably had a pretty good idea of the kind of parent you would be and you probably thought a lot about how your kids would turn out. For good or bad. Maybe you just knew that you would set boundaries and keep schedules and raise future statesmen and women. Or you knew that you would be laid back and open-minded, raising kids who would be just as chill. But how often do these carefully laid plans actually fall into place? For me, the answer is one. I planned to bring a baby home from the hospital – and I did. Just barely.
Right now, my my oldest daughter is in the middle of that lesser known level of hell called “college applications.” As she is looking eagerly towards her future and planning for greatness as a 17-year old will, I find myself looking increasingly at her past. I haven’t had the heart to explain the futility of planning to her quite yet. I figure that crushed hopes and dreams is all part of growing up, right?
I look back to my daughter’s entrance into this world and all I can say is, “Well, kid, you can’t say you weren’t warned.” I did not plan her arrival in any way. I mean, once I knew she was on her way, I was on board. But she’s what we like to call a “surprise” baby – not an accident or unplanned, but simply a surprise. Kind of like a surprise birthday party. Your heart stops for a minute and you have a flash of, “But I really just wanted to put on pajamas, eat ice cream in bed and binge watch The Gilmore Girls, but…a party. That’s cool, too.” And then you end up having the time of your life.
Yeah. It’s been a lot like that.
Despite the initial surprise, I did plan for the next steps. I read the books. I got the appropriate safety-rated baby gear based on careful reviews. I ate the foods I was supposed to eat. I didn’t eat the foods I wasn’t supposed to eat. I painted the nursery gender-neutral colors, because even though the sonogram said “girl,” you never know, after all. I planned for a natural delivery. I was ready.
We were living in San Francisco far away from family. So I had my mother come out the week before my due date. When I made it to my due date, I thought I was doing fairly well, plan-wise. Then when labor started the day after, I still thought, “Ok, this isn’t so bad. I’m on track.” Labor was long and hard, but I made it. As one does, I instantly fell madly, helplessly, head-over-heels for this red, wrinkly alien life form that had just given me the hardest 9 months and 17 hours of my life. And, of course, there were a few tiny, unexpected complications after the delivery, but nothing too major. So far, so good, right?
While all of this rolling with the punches was happening at the hospital, my mom was running back and forth from the house, bringing food and other necessities. So when the day came to actually bring the baby home from the hospital, she grabbed the car seat from the spare bedroom where it sat on top of a pile of “carefully planned” baby accessories. It was then that she realized that she didn’t know how to strap it in, so she simply threw it in the back seat and came to pick us up.
As you probably know, most hospitals make you ride in a wheelchair to the exit. It’s the last time you will relax for the next six months – another thing that you didn’t plan for. But I digress. As I’m sitting in the wheelchair, blissfully holding my newborn daughter, I watch my husband leaning into the back seat of the car, trying to strap the car seat in. After a minute, he sticks his head out, with a strange look on his face. “This smells weird,” he says. “I think the cat peed on it.”
Ok, so we had this cat. He liked to stay in the guest room. Except the guest room only became the guest room when the original guest room became the nursery. The “new” guest room had previously been a general storage room, full of dark corners and empty boxes, ideal for a cat with the personality of a sociopathic hermit. When his once dark, dank man cave was converted to a bright, cheery guest room, which also served as a staging area for “New Baby v.1.0,” he was anything but “cool” with it.
And so he peed on the car seat to express his concern.
Of course, we did not know this until the very moment we were supposed to be strapping our 48-hour old, freshly hatched baby into said seat. At this point there was nothing to do but what we did – which was to have my husband strip off his shirt to put over the seat, stick the baby in anyway, and strap her down. It was a long 15 minutes home.
When we finally got to the house, we brought her inside, lovingly kissed her downy head and inhaled the fresh, aromatic scent of…cat pee.
I looked at her then and said, “Welcome to your life, kid.”
I should have known then that the next 17 years would only go according to plan in that nothing would go as planned. We ended up back in Virginia after several moves to far away places. Our family eventually fell apart. She has lived in eleven houses and attended schools in four different cities. She has had two younger sisters – followed by a surprise third from her dad last year. She has been up. She has been down. She has been everywhere in between. But somehow she has survived.
And the funny thing is that as I’ve run around shouting, “But this is NOT how it was supposed to go!” she has stayed steady and true. She has known what she wanted out of her life since the time she was five. Since then, everything she has done, even in the midst of the hurricane we call our life, has been focused on this one goal. Now, as she prepares to go to college, she remains zeroed-in and laser-focused. I sometimes question if I brought the right child home from the hospital – and if perhaps there is some other child out there who would be more fazed by a pee-covered car seat than this steadfast child living in my house.
But I guess that’s the moral of the story isn’t it? Nothing in parenting – or life for that matter – is going to go according to plan. When my life turned in to a chaotic, unplanned disaster, I planned on having kids that would be equally chaotic and unfocused. And yet, here is this kid that seems to just “get it” no matter what life throws at her.
As I’ve watched her grow and evolve over the last 17 years, I’ve seen that trick is not to focus so much on the plan, but the goal. My daughter hasn’t worried about having a straight, carefully designated line to her final destination. Instead, she’s sidestepped and skipped her way forward – ultimately turning her journey into a beautiful dance.
Maybe I won’t have that talk about “plans” after all. As she gets ready to go off on her own, I like to think that she’s already learned that life doesn’t always go the way we think it will. I like to think that she sees the beauty in a life that goes off-script, because it’s life that is lived beyond the limitations of our own imaginations. And it’s the surprises in life that become some of our greatest adventures.
The fact is, your perfect birth plan may end up with a c-section. Your planned c-section may end up as a surprise natural delivery. But however it goes, pay close attention. Because from the moment these little people enter our lives, they are going to surprise us.
The bottom line is that life has a funny way of working itself out in spite of us – and that’s the one thing you can count on.